The poet talks parlor tricks, poetry and his desire to emulate the kindness exhibited by his late adopted father

Zach Hannah has an innate ability to keep things in balance — shipping pallets, wooden rocking horses, telescopes, lawnmowers — each of which the poet has perched delicately atop his chin in a running series of photographs and videos.

“I’ve been balancing yardsticks, brooms, any stick-like thing on my feet as long as I can remember,” Hannah said. “And maybe two and a half years ago … I was like, ‘I wonder if I can do this on my face,’ and it turned out to be really easy.”

While the balancing act is a bit of a parlor trick, it does speak to a larger motivator at the center of everything Hannah does, be it his poetry, the odd musical contribution (he delivered an emotionally stirring verse on the most recent album from rap duo Dug and Happy Tooth) and even his more general charitable pursuits, such as offering up everything from car rides to assistance with heavy lifting under the social media hashtag #FreeLaborForCommunity.

“One of my core values as I move around and navigate life … is entertainment, and, ‘Does this spark joy?’” he said. “I think that idea is universal. If all I get is a ‘neat,’ and if my life comes down to a ‘neat’? Success.”

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Hannah didn’t have it easy growing up. His birth mother, a schizophrenic who worked as a prostitute for years, gave him up for adoption when he was an infant, and he was raised by blue-collar parents in Portsmouth, Ohio. Hannah traces much of his inherent desire for kindness to his adopted father, Roger Hannah, a factory worker whose gruff exterior belied an inner softness that his son has done his best to emulate. “I just wanna be the kind of kind/That reminds me of my father,” Hannah raps in his guest verse on Dug and Happy Tooth track “Nothin to Nobody,” a tribute to his dad, who died in January.

“He was strikingly kind, especially for his age and the time period I grew up,” Hannah said, relaying a story about the time in high school when his friend came out as gay and Hannah’s father responded with a chuckle and a cheery “whatever works!” rather than expressing bigotry or confusion. “I don’t mean to sound trite, but I watched that man suffer for 20 years with a smile on his face. I mean, Appalachia is not a very hopeful place, so to see a personality live through all the trappings of Appalachia, from poverty to [the lack of] health care and still have him joking in ICU, I don’t know. That’s in me. I can hurt, but I want other people to smile.”

For years, Hannah excised these personal demons in his poetry, which he came to via Scott Woods’ weekly Writers’ Block Poetry Night roughly eight years ago. Prior to that discovery, Hannah’s lone writing experience outside of schoolwork consisted of scrawling esoteric lyrics to hip-hop songs that he never recorded, and his initial forays into poetry were similarly focused on wordplay.

This started to change after Hannah witnessed a feature from poet Rachel McKibbens, who read a work that included lines about her schizophrenic biological mother. “And I was like, ‘Excuse me? Excuse me, poet? Is this life plagiarism?’” he said, and laughed. “And she wrote about infant death and mortality, which is close to me, as well. I had a sister die of SIDS, and a niece kidnapped and murdered.”

Following the McKibbens reading, Hannah entered into a period of deeper self-excavation, though he said it took a good year or two to finally home in on his own poetic voice, which first started to emerge in “The Titanic Vs. Apollo Creed,” a piece that melds surrealist lines with more intimate biographical details. “Forcing this nonsense string of words into a real poem … got me to process personal experiences in ways that I hadn’t before,” he said.

In the years since, Hannah said his gaze has gradually shifted outward, his words increasingly focused on concepts such as the growing class divide, the need for social justice and the damages caused by systemic racism, among other communal subjects.

“For a while, I exorcised most of my personal trauma on the page, and if there was something I struggled with emotionally, psychologically, I brought it out in one weird way or another,” said Hannah, who credited poetry with helping him avoid more self-destructive behaviors. “And I think I hit the point in the last year … where I don’t need that anymore. It doesn’t feel like a necessary part of the process. … And once I stopped needing to expunge my demons, my hurts, it really made me try to source my ideas from a space other than what’s going on in my own head.”